The State of 911

Current and future challenges to public safety communications

By Bob Smith
Director of Strategic Development, APCO International

As we sat and listened to President Barack Obama give his State of the Union Address in January, it gave many of us a chance to pause and reflect on the current state of our own piece of the Union — public safety. For many, those reflections were even more focused on a single component of that bigger picture — public safety communications.

Earlier in in the month, NBC's Today Show aired a feature — embedded within this article —  that provided a dramatic snapshot of the current state of public safety communications and 911 in the United States.

While the focal point of the episode was a tragic incident in Texas, it was expanded to cover many of the current challenges and issues facing public safety communications and 911 and featured interviews with President Richard Mirgon of the Association of Public-Safety Communications Officials (APCO), International; the world’s oldest and largest non-profit association dedicated to public safety communications.

Though only a snapshot, the feature was accurate in its portrayal of the problems plaguing the lifeline relied on by today's first responders whether fire, EMS or law enforcement. While there are myriad challenges facing the 911 industry today, the biggest are funding, training and staffing disparities between different agencies across the United States.

Training needs
The single biggest of these is training. The days of a 911 "operator" answering a call, taking a message and passing on the information are over. Today's public safety telecommunicator must serve as calltaker, dispatcher, medical care provider, counselor and all-round master of information and resources. Factor into that equation the constantly evolving and emerging technologies ranging from SmartPhones and text messaging to Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) and the process gets even more complicated. This is indeed a challenging career and intense, consistent and continuous training should be required at all levels.

Unfortunately, that is not the case everywhere in the country. Training is currently determined by the priorities and abilities of each individual communications center and those priorities and abilities vary from place to place. The result is that someone calling 911 in one county could receive a completely different level of service than someone requesting emergency assistance just across the county line.

There is a tremendous need for a higher level of training, the funding to help that training occur and the mandates to ensure that it does. And there's a need for the community to support organizations like APCO to support the needs of this industry as it supports the needs of the field responders across the country.

The 911 calltaker is the first point of contact for callers in need and dictates the level of response received thereafter. If they don't have the funding they need to have the technological support and training they require to do their jobs, then the public will most likely not receive the level of emergency service they are expecting.

For example, all 911 telecommunicators should be trained in Emergency Medical Dispatch (EMD), which is the program that trains 911 telecommunicators in processing medical emergencies including the provision of pre-arrival instructions such as those for choking, CPR and childbirth. Studies from several health and medical-related organizations, including the American Heart Association, note that seconds count when health crises occur. Any medical assistance that a 911 telecommunicator can offer is providing additional time for the emergency response units to arrive. And all 911 telecommunicators can be trained to provide this life-saving assistance.

Further, public safety communications professionals are not considered in the same light as sworn officers and other emergency response personnel. Not only does this affect employee morale, but it affects budget priorities within agencies.

And agency-level budget issues are not even the biggest funding issues currently facing the 911 industry. Many states have "raided" 911 funds for other services or to rectify budget shortfalls in other areas. There is no excuse for the raiding of 911 funds for other uses.

Road repairs
Last year an Associated Press article revealed that more than $200 million collected from landline and cellular telephone subscribers for the express purpose of 911 system upgrades had been raided in the previous two years for purposes ranging from road repair to purchasing vehicles. Other states actually mandate that this funding be directed toward equipment, instead of letting the local agency determine what the funding is best used for such as training.

Often times, the complexities of the 911 industry get lost on the public-at-large. And this includes public officials and administrative personnel responsible for determining funding needs. Public safety as a whole needs to do a better job of educating public officials on the need for these funds and the appropriate uses. And we need the help of the general public in supporting us in preserving this life-saving service.

As the Today Show feature emphasized, the public is completely unaware of the operations involved in the 911 system. It is by nature a truly transparent infrastructure that the common person assumes will "just be there" when they need it. They have come to expect seamless service from the time they make the 911 call until the response units arrive. And that is an absolutely valid expectation and they should expect no less. But there are a number of other obstacles with which the 911 industry is struggling in addition to the training and funding issues.

Another challenge is the inability for 911 centers across the country to recruit and retain employees. This is a highly visible problem in the fire service, especially in the volunteer ranks. It is no less a challenge for the country's 911 centers. APCO conducted a study on public safety communications employee retention in 2005 and a follow-up study in 2009 called Project RETAINS, which found the turnover rate in the 911 industry at 19 percent — higher than that of teachers and nurses.

As noted earlier, 911 call taking is a very stressful and diverse job that takes a unique individual. Add to that the lack of funding and training allotted to the industry as a whole and you have an industry full of professionals working long and varied hours for little money in a very high-stress industry where they are not respected by their colleagues or the public.

So what is the solution?

The simple answer is that 911needs dedicated and continuous funding, mandatory and consistent training and an overall professionalization of the industry. To achieve this it will be necessary to focus the attention and support of government officials at all levels. And achieving that will require the support of the public. Government doesn't move without public support.

So as a public safety professional, take the time to study your local 911 and public safety communications centers. They are your lifeline on every call — routine to catastrophic. Are they prepared to respond when you need them? When the public needs them? If not, why? And what can you and your public safety peers in your jurisdiction do to ensure they are? Helping them helps you and ultimately helps the community you both serve.

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